Thursday, June 01, 2023

Praying as Performative Ontology

The world of my back yard

One author I keep reading is Pentecostal philosopher James K. A. Smith, who teaches at Calvin College. That's interesting in itself, right?

In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith writes the following about the practice of praying:

"The practice of prayer banks on God's exceeding our worship space, transcending the confines of space and time, and as the Creator of the universe, being interested and concerned about concrete realities that face us here in our finitude. Praying enacts an entire cosmology because implicit in the very act of prayer is an entire ontology and construal of the God-world relationship. This doesn't mean we need to pursue a doctorate in metaphysics in order to pray; on the contrary, the point is that by doing it, by praying, we are engaged in a sort of performative ontology that could be teased out in reflection and analysis." (p. 193. By "performative" Smith means in the sense of J.L. Austin, in the latter's How to Do Things With Words. Performative utterances do things, and establish things. In this case, prayer performatively establishes a worldview.)

The act of praying posits, prethematically, a worldview (following Charles Taylor, a "social imaginary"). By "performative ontology," Smith means a "doing" that prereflectively assumes the truthfulness of Christian theism. Such truthfulness could, if one wanted, reflectively "tease out" the propositions that make up the Christian social imaginary. 

This prereflective social imaginary is prior to the kind of reflection done in apologetics or theology. A praying person just "knows" such a world to be real. A praying person is, from the point of view of today's secular social imaginary, in another world; as N.T. Wright says, at the intersection of heaven and earth.